Winston Churchill was the most senior executive in England in his time. Yes, there was a king, but top leadership of Britain in World War II was Churchill. The workload of most senior executives is all-consuming, let alone the workload of the leader of a country at war. Look at the workload of the President of the United States and you can understand the challenge. Wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill was not only the leader of his country, he was the leader of the free world, leading the war effort in a global conflict.
English government and English business are often maligned as ineffective. While there are times when the label “ineffective” is justified, it is easy to find examples of ineffective leadership in the government or business of any country, and to paint British government with this generality is wrong. The British people awoke from a broken policy of appeasement that followed a long World War led by an ineffective government. The ineffectiveness that followed was strategic and geopolitical in nature. The government that Churchill took over was ineffective.
Winston Churchill understood that the perception of the problem of continued ineffective government required a sharp break; the British people and government required a “bracing splash of cold water.” Churchill knew he would need to set an example from the top as a dynamic leader in action—and he immediately set a blistering pace. This pace was in sharp contrast to previous Prime Ministers, including the ones who led the country in the First World War. Churchill was 65 when he assumed the post, but he embodied energy. He set a pace that quickly established 10 Downing Street as a dynamo that pressured the old-fashioned, lazy, and cumbersome government machine to step up to his pace. Many worked to keep up, and some died trying, but all raced to keep up with Churchill.
To meet the demands of his office, Winston Churchill in effect worked two solid eight-hour days in a 24-hour period. At that time he was not a young man, and he understood the importance of getting proper rest and maintaining a pace that would preserve his energy to survive the grueling long haul. He created a structured schedule that set the pace for his routine. Establishing that routine eliminated the need to spend time figuring out what he needed to do that day. It also allowed his staff, the members of Parliament, and military leaders to plan for when they could meet with their leader. The routine allowed Churchill to become an effective and successful leader.
Churchill's work day would start around 7:00 AM. Churchill would work from his bed until the late morning or early afternoon. He used a special wooden tray constructed specifically for writing and reading. He would arise and have a light breakfast—and then from the comfort of his bed, with his tray in his lap, he would begin working through the paperwork, memos, and other correspondence his staff would present for his review, comment, and approval. He would rise from bed and dress when the work was completed or when he needed to go to scheduled meetings. His staff organized and handled the endless stream of paper as it flowed across his tray, presenting him with the next subject as he completed the work at hand. With total focus on the work at hand, Churchill could mow through a mountain of written correspondence quickly and efficiently.
After completing the morning correspondence, Churchill would dress for the day. In the afternoon he would attend meetings or make public appearances. Seldom before noon would Churchill make it over to the War Cabinet room a few blocks from 10 Downing. Key people would already have been at work, but it was routine for Churchill to walk into the hubbub after the noon hour, and everyone on the War Cabinet staff knew that. If Churchill arrived early it meant something was wrong or there was some other unusual event on his calendar that necessitated the schedule change—which they knew in advance.
While this routine might fly in the face of conventional wisdom, it allowed Churchill to read and absorb the latest internal information about the progress of the war. It allowed him to digest reports and information. It also allowed him to think and respond from the quiet of his quarters. Churchill used this quiet time for his letters and memo dictation, and a great deal of clear, lucid written communication came from his bed.
His routine allowed the members of his leadership team to do the same as their boss—to read, talk, and understand events, so that when Churchill walked into the room they were as ready as he was. The routine also allowed the rest of the leadership team to have meaningful and constructive discussions and make decisions quickly.
After the War Cabinet meetings, Churchill used the remainder of the afternoon to do important “face time.” He went into the planning rooms to track great battles, visited areas of London to see the people, spoke in Parliament, met with government ministers, visited factories, met with production boards, reviewed new weapons demonstrations, and so on.
At about five o'clock Churchill would return to his bedroom and burrow under the covers to take a solid one-hour nap. Upon awakening and after a light supper, Churchill would read all the major newspapers to take the pulse of what his people were thinking and saying. He would often instruct the government to investigate and address issues he saw in the people's opinions. His ever-present typists and secretaries were at the ready, and Churchill would sometimes dictate as many as twenty or thirty memos based on what he read in the newspapers.
Around midnight he would retire to bed. Understanding the need for deep sleep, Winston Churchill left very strict instructions not to be disturbed for anything except news of the British Isles actually being invaded. Short of that, nothing was important enough for his rest to be disturbed.
First: A structured and predictable routine allowed the rest of his team to know when he would arrive—and what was on the agenda. After a few weeks, it was clear what was to happen when, in what place, what was expected, and who was to be there. The routine established in the first few weeks remained in place until the end of the war, and the team never had to put extra thought into it. Simplification brings efficiency, and a structured routine brings simplification.
Second: Churchill set aside two separate times each day for quiet digestion of information and critical thinking. In today’s amped-up world of phones, e-mail, “crackberries,” and other tools of our always-in-contact culture, there is not enough critical thinking. Churchill understood that his job as a leader was to strategize, and strategy is not a reactionary sport. The problem with most of today's managers is that when faced with a problem, they do the first thing that pops into their heads. Tactical leaders—and we need them—are mostly reactionary leaders. The strategist will always out-think the tactician. The strategist engages in critical thinking on a regular, scheduled basis. How many supply chain leaders have you observed who do not engage in critical thinking, who rely on reaction and not action?
Third: The structured routine kept the crazy-makers and the interruptions, for the most part, out of the picture. That didn't mean he wouldn't take a call from the King, but for the most part, people knew his schedule and respected it. How much more do you think a good supply chain or logistics manager could get done in a day if they could focus specific chunks of time on their key priorities and the important problems of the day, without the interruption of the “got a minute?” meeting that takes 30 minutes? If you want to get significant work done, limit your accessibility and watch your productivity increase.
Finally, Churchill understood the need to rest and to pace himself. When asked by a young Paul Johnson, “To what do you attribute your success in life?” Churchill replied without hesitation, “Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.” He knew that he was in for a leadership marathon that would last for years. For the survival and victory of his people, Churchill understood that he needed to be in it for the long haul. How many supply chain leaders do you know who cannot maintain a pace, who make bad decisions and mistakes because they are not alert and thinking? If you want to make consistently good decisions, you must have the energy and rest to make those decisions.